“its thread looping”

Christ have mercy.
Hear our sighs too deep for words.
Christ have mercy.

In the wake of the shootings at Robb Elementary School, I was drawn back to this sermon I wrote over six years ago–after another mass shooting closer to my home.

Christ have mercy.

Fig tree with fruit

A sermon on Luke 13:1-9 from February 2016

Jesus, Jesus. Did you hear? There were these people from Galilee, they were faithful, made the pilgrimage to Jerusalem to offer their sacrifices at the temple. And then. And then. These men. Pilate’s men. They just killed them. Slaughtered them right there in the temple. The blood of the people mixed with the blood of the animals. An unholy, horrific sacrifice.

Did you hear? I know you heard. There were people in Newton, Kansas, just driving down the road and this man shot at them. People working at Excel Industries in Hesston when he barged in with his guns and started shooting. Chaos and blood. Fourteen people injured. Four dead. A community in shock and deep grief.

“Everyone knows,” writes Mary Oliver.

Everyone knows the great energies running amok cast
terrible shadows, that each of the so-called
senseless acts has its thread looping
back through the world and into a human heart.

“Do you think,” asks Jesus.
Do you think that because these people suffered in this way they were worse sinners than all other people?
No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all perish as they did.

This question from Jesus seems a bit harsh, given the context. He is speaking to a crowd that we assume to be made up of Jewish people—quite possibly some Galileans, potentially even family members and friends of the victims from the terrible massacre in the temple. Why would they have thought that people were sinners for offering sacrifices?

Do you think that because these people suffered in this way they were worse sinners than all other people? Jesus, of course, says “no.” So apparently it was a rhetorical question. Which makes us feel better. For a half of a second until Jesus continues: “Unless you repent, you will all perish as they did.”

Here is the truth: I wish we had last Sunday’s text assigned for this week. In the wake of this week’s mass shootings in Kalamazoo and Hesston, I would much rather talk to you about Jesus as the mother hen longing to gather her chicks under her wings. Under her wings where it is warm and soft and safe.

But this week Jesus does not seem warm and soft and safe. This week Jesus says, “Repent or die”–which is like one of those awful billboards you see driving through Kansas on I-70.

Now, when we see the billboard, what it means—or at least what I assume it means is: “Stop sleeping with people we think you shouldn’t sleep with and stop doing any number of other things that we think you shouldn’t do or our judgmental, vengeful God will smite you.” The “you” in the American billboard version is almost always singular.

But the Greek “you” is plural—throughout this entire passage the “you” is grammatically plural. “Unless you all repent, you will all perish.” It’s not a matter of good people getting good things and bad people getting punished. We are all in this together.

The grammar makes a difference. So does the meaning of “repent.” We tend to think that repent means to be sorry for something bad we have done—and not just feeling sorry, but actually changing our ways and not doing the bad thing again.

For Jesus and his audience, though, the command to “repent” wasn’t really about actions. New Testament professor Matthew Skinner explains, “The word translated as ‘repent’ is, at its root, about thinking and perception. It refers to a wholesale change in how a person understands something. It implies an utter reconfiguration of your perspective on reality and meaning, including (in the New Testament) a reorientation of yourself toward God. Your behavior might change as a result of this new perception, certainly; but repentance first involves seeing things differently and coming to a new understanding of what God makes possible.”

These shooting deaths, they are heartbreaking. And infuriating. Because the shooting in Newton and Hesston on Thursday was the 33rd mass shooting in the United States this year.

Jesus says, “If you do not repent, you will all perish as they did.” This is not a threat, it is a truth. We may not all die by gun violence, but people continue to die every single day. And if we do not repent, we will keep dying.

Everyone knows the great energies running amok cast
terrible shadows, that each of the so-called
senseless acts has its thread looping
back through the world and into a human heart.

Maybe our necessary repentance has to do with seeing that the thread of violence in the human heart of the shooters in Hesston and Kalamazoo and San Bernardino and Roseburg and Charleston—that thread loops back through the world.

It loops through unconscionable gun legislation and a hyper-violent media culture; it loops through our failures to support struggling families, through underfunded schools and crowded jails and overwhelmed mental health care systems; it loops through our false ideas about being “male” and “female;” it loops through our racial prejudices and our xenophobia and our patriarchy and our sense of entitlement.

It is a long and winding thread.

Repentance is what we desperately need as a nation. A re-visioning, a re-imagining of what our communities can and should be. We need to change how we, as a society, perceive guns and violence and masculinity and relationships and mental health. We need to check our values and be honest with ourselves about the reality of our pro-gun culture and our pro-gun laws.

“Unless you repent, you will all perish as they did.”

Jesus moves from “repent or die” right into the parable of the unfruitful fig tree. It has always seemed a rather odd juxtaposition to me. Why would Jesus (or the writer of Luke, as the case may be) move directly from “repent or you will all perish” to “a man had a fig tree planted in his vineyard”?

I’m intrigued by something biblical scholar Charles Hedrick points out about this parable, something that many of us miss: this is one terrible vineyard owner. (Perspectives in Religious Studies. “An Unfinished Story about a Fig Tree in a Vineyard.” Summer 1999.) He has come to the tree for three years looking for fruit. Three years. There is no indication that he has done anything during that time to encourage the tree to produce fruit. As far as we can tell, this is the first time the owner has even spoken to the gardener about the problem. He just shows up, sees the tree has no fruit, gets grumpy about it, and goes away. Then comes back the next year to check. Lather. Rinse. Repeat.

Until the third year he is so fed up he says, “Cut it down!”. What did he expect? That the tree would just magically become healthy on its own?

The owner, I think, needs to repent, to see things differently—which is perhaps what the gardener is trying to help him do: “Let me tend it. Let me fertilize it. Then let’s see if there is some fruit.” The owner views the land as a commodity that should simply provide for him. The gardener understands that fruitfulness comes from partnership, not ownership.

Now, let me say that allegory is a dangerous thing when interpreting the parables of Jesus—don’t try this at home. But I am a trained professional. So let’s consider one allegorical possibility here, just as a sort of thought experiment.

The system, the government, the “powers that be,” are the vineyard owner. Shrugging their shoulders about gun violence, just as the owner in Jesus’ story shrugged his shoulders about the fruitless tree. Shrugging their shoulders and walking away and then being surprised when the situation does not change. Year after year, no fruit. Every other day, another mass shooting. But, oh well, what are you going to do?

And we, we can be the gardeners, calling the system to repent. Saying, “Wait! Let’s do something to make this better.”

I know. I know that many of you are that gardener, have been that gardener for a long long time. You’ve spoken up, written letters, made phone calls. And the owner isn’t listening. The system isn’t budging.

But please, please, don’t shut up. This call to repentance, this insistence that people change their perspective, this is a holy call. It is the key message of Jesus: Repent! For the Kingdom of God is at hand.

We must echo the call of Jesus: Repent! Change the way you view the world, because this current vision of hierarchy and power and violence and scarcity and individualism is killing you. You think it is just killing them, but trust me, it is also killing you.


It is a hard and holy message that we are called to proclaim.

Keep gardening, my friends. Keep speaking up to the landowner. Keep stopping the ax from swinging down. Keep fertilizing the fruitless fig tree.

And know that God is with you in this holy work.

2 thoughts on ““its thread looping”

  1. Great post that speaks to the situation in our world. This makes me remember that I need to continually strive towards peace and support those people who have peace as their goal.

  2. Dear Joanna, this is not the first time your words have been a balm to my spirit and an encouragement to keep working. I get discouraged because my letters to our congress members most often seem to fall on deaf ears. But your words here remind me that it is important to keep going, no matter what. I do have some hope that at some point we will come to the tipping point in so many needs for change in our country, and our words to our leaders can be of help in moving in this direction.

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